An Internet service provider (ISP) doesn’t simply serve as a connection to the Internet anymore. The three most popular ISPs – AOL, Yahoo and MSN – serve as online communities offering enriched Internet services while constantly working to expand their subscription and reach numbers. Competition between MSN and AOL continued to heat up in the fall of 2002 as Microsoft prepared to launch the latest version of its ISP, MSN 8.
Uncharacteristically, Microsoft was actually perceived as the underdog in this market. But an astute media relations program set the stage for garnering important product testing and reviews from the industry’s most influential tech gurus. Their feedback helped shape the product into what was called “a TKO [technical knockout]” (Fortune). The resulting widespread acclaim for MSN 8 from other reviewers and technology media vaulted MSN into Number One for the first time in its seven years.
What does it mean to be Number One in the industry? It can be measured by the number of people using your product, or by your reputation for quality. By both counts, Microsoft’s MSN service – with its 9 million subscribers – was most decidedly not number one before this time. Not only did it lag behind AOL, with 32 million subscribers, and Yahoo, it also was considered an inferior product among the very influential software reviewers. MSN gained some ground with the release of MSN 7 in October 2001, but only to a distant second.
As it prepared to launch MSN 8, its most significant product to date, MSN was determined not to be bested by the newly upgraded AOL. The company wanted to improve its product so greatly that it would not only wow reviewers but gain great consumer awareness that would lead to new subscriptions. MSN asked Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft’s agency of record, to assist with the launch of the new version, MSN 8. We would be responsible for the consumer media relations strategy and execution in business and metro press, as well as trade press.
The Waggener Edstrom team evaluated Microsoft’s extensive consumer data as well as conducting its own informal and formal media audits by phone and e-mail.  Waggener Edstrom also analyzed past MSN coverage to assess opportunities. The research indicated key findings:
· “Influentials” – key audiences who influence consumers (see Audiences, below) – understood Microsoft’s strength in software development over its competitors, yet they weren’t writing about the value of this strength.
· Trend and issues-oriented stories dominated coverage; any news on subscriber figures or the like would need to be tied to a trend or issue.
· MSN was still behind AOL in consumer awareness, and in consumer understanding of why it was a better solution to AOL’s offerings.
· Product features in which MSN fell short compared to AOL and others included parental controls, which give parents a greater role in monitoring their children’s safe use of the Internet, and filtering of “spam” (unwanted e-mails).
 This clearly pointed to an opportunity to change minds about MSN – but the product would need to change first. Waggener Edstrom knew that through its media relations work, it could solicit important feedback that would enable MSN to enhance the product.
All strategies were designed to drive consumers to choose MSN over other ISPs, especially AOL; to position MSN 8 as the “Leapfrog” product, surpassing AOL in functionality and providing a better choice for consumers and ensure MSN 8 is mentioned in coverage of AOL 8.0; and to differentiate MSN from the competition by highlighting the benefits of its software. Educate on key pillars of MSN 8 – differences between this and MSN 7 – by highlighting the software’s strength and tying to industry trends.
Waggener Edstrom created a four-phased plan to frame the debate and keep excitement alive over a long period.
Pre-Announcement, March 14-July 15, Waggener Edstrom began to build awareness and excitement for MSN 8.
Conducted “Vision Tours” with MSN vice president Yusuf Mehdi, visiting key Influentials (including consumer media and analysts) to talk about the direction of the product before the code was developed. The firm conducted “Leapfrog Tours” with Mehdi, visiting consumer product reviewers to demonstrate the product’s superiority to AOL, and developed a 27-page reviewers guide, “Guide to a Useful Web”.
For the announcement on July 16, Waggener Edstrom unveiled “beta” (test) version of MSN 8 to core audiences. Activities included a bi-coastal press tour with MSN executives to 38 top consumer beat reporters and reviewers and a financial analyst day, with the firm inviting key analysts to Microsoft for an overview of Microsoft products, ensuring MSN 8 was included. Mehdi gave a product demonstration and outlined his vision.
During the “Pillar Push/MSN 8 Coming Soon” phase, July 17–October 24, Waggener Edstrom highlighted the benefits of the key features. The firm conducted consistent consumer media outreach through September and October via tours and news announcements, including 10 news releases with themes such as Anti-Spam Campaign and Online Safety, especially parental controls. It also held “Geek Tour” meetings between MSN executives and the most technical of the top national reviewers to demonstrate the significance of MSN 8 in comparison to AOL 8.0; and final Leapfrog Tours, taking MSN executives to meet with national and metro reviewers and trades.
Finally, for the Launch and Beyond phase, the firm worked to drive huge awareness and positive coverage of MSN 8. It held launch event in Central Park, New York City, for 200+ Influentials, employees, partners and others, and booked Bill Gates and MSN executive interviews in key consumer business and trade press. It also worked to generate two days of consumer press coverage on the launch by strategically announcing different news day-before and day-of launch; for example, news on a partnership with the Walt Disney Co. was held till launch day.
 Waggener Edstrom logged 220,000 miles last year – enough to circle the earth nine times – but the most significant trip was the jump to Number One among ISPs. The seven months of smart planning and execution helped MSN leapfrog over AOL, changing the way MSN is perceived by reviewers, analysts and editors.
 Waggener Edstrom met its goal of winning 100 percent of product reviews, where a win was a recommendation over AOL. Of the top 15 reviewers, eight recommended that consumers buy MSN 8 over AOL 8.0, and none recommended AOL over MSN. “If I were a new subscriber,” wrote Time’s reviewer, “I would choose MSN over AOL.” PC Magazine wrote, “MSN outshines AOL in two of its trademark features: parental and spam controls.”
Media coverage exceeded the objectives, and consistently conveyed the target messages. The total circulation, March-launch, was 123 million+, with 389 articles and nearly 223 million impressions generated. The MSN 8 messages resounded regularly and clearly in virtually every announcement, resulting in over 96 percent message pick-up. In addition, MSN 8 was included in 95 percent of AOL 8.0 coverage. The equivalent ad value of media coverage was $2.7 million – nearly three times the client’s investment.
What’s more, Waggener Edstrom exceeded its objective of increasing awareness, according to third-party research. Unaided consumer awareness of MSN increased from 21 percent in February to 36 percent on Oct. 24, and continued to rise. Since advertising didn’t start till launch day, this jump by Oct. 24 is largely credited to Waggener Edstrom’s efforts.
Also rewarding: As a result of Waggener Edstrom’s initial work with Good Housekeeping, MSN 8 is the first software ever to be awarded the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval – the highly respected distinction recognized by 95 percent of women as an indication of a product’s superiority.
 Waggener Edstrom’s ability to bring together MSN and Influentials to create a better product goes far beyond traditional media relations and is one of the greatest services public relations can offer.